Alissa and Jim Bartkus, parents who live Uptown, have little trouble getting their children to try new foods. In fact, the Bartkus kids — ages 9, 7 and 4 — are game for just about any type of meal their parents show them, from Korean barbecue to New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. But dining at restaurants with such adventurous young gourmands has its price, literally.
"Imagine you're eating tapas and you have this bottomless pit of an appetite and someone else is paying. It gets expensive," says Jim, who teaches economics at Xavier University. "We're psyched that they'll try different things, but sometimes it's a relief when a place has a kids' menu and I can get them interested in it."
Ah, the kids' menu: straightforward, streamlined and usually priced well below the regular menu. It's a tool that functions both as training wheels for young customers and a life ring for parents who want to enjoy a meal out with their children, with limited tableside drama.
There are many options out there, from the old reliable neighborhood joint to some surprisingly highbrow restaurants that have carved out space in their operations for the next generation of diners.
For instance, the Pelican Club (312 Exchange Place, 523-1504; www.pelicanclub.com) has a children's menu, though this French Quarter fine-dining spot sets the bar way above chicken fingers. Among the options, the kids' menu lists a paneed Gulf fish with jumbo lump crabmeat and jalapeno Hollandaise, and a petite filet mignon with marchand de vin sauce, complete with truffled mashed potatoes and (evidently without irony) baby vegetables. At $14, these children's dishes cost about half as much as the restaurant's regular entrees.
A kids' menu has been a fixture at Dick & Jenny's (4501 Tchoupitoulas St., 894-9880; www.dickandjennys.com) from the start. The Uptown restaurant's original owners (and namesakes) Richard and Jennifer Benz wanted to encourage family dining, current co-owner Will Peters says, and over the years the restaurant's regulars have come to rely on it. So while the kitchen plates up escargot and seared tuna for diners using the regular menu, kids can get shrimp with goat cheese grits or red beans and sausage over popcorn rice for $6 and $5 a plate, respectively.
The setting and concept of other eateries makes a kids' menu practically a requirement. That's the case at American Sector (945 Magazine St., 528-1940; www.american-sector.com), a John Besh restaurant afiliated with the National World War II Museum. But this place still puts a creative spin on things. Here, the $7 kids' meal has a choice of entrees plus fries, a soft drink, a cookie and a other goodies, all served in a vintage-style lunch box the child can take home for $5 more.
When local restaurateur Ralph Brennan started planning his upscale neighborhood spot Cafe B (2700 Metairie Roaf, Metairie, 934-4700; www.cafeb.com) in Old Metairie last year, his managers quickly realized a children's menu had to be part of the program.
"We have about 13 schools and churches in the area [that] we consider our neighborhood," says Chris Montero, executive chef at Cafe B. The kids' options, which ring in between $5 and $8 apiece, have become an important part of some mealtimes, especially early dinner and Sunday brunch.
"What we do is take some of our signature dishes and revise them a bit for kids," Montero says. "We're known for our macaroni and cheese, so that's on there, and we emphasize the cheddar more and add fresh fruit on the side."
Bourbon Street may not naturally spring to mind as a place to take kids, but Cafe B's older sister restaurant Red Fish Grill (115 Bourbon St., 598-1200; www.redfishgrill.com) has long been a reliable spot for feeding kids in the Quarter. After all, the wildly colorful dining room can resemble the sound stage of a Nickelodeon production, and the $9 kids' menu options range from seafood pasta to grilled cheese, with a drink and ice cream included.
High Hat Cafe (4500 Freret St., 754-1336; www.highhatcafe.com) cultivates an easy-going, old-time vibe with its tile floors, picture windows and mix of New Orleans and Deep South specialties. A children's menu fits right in, with $7 options such as catfish fingers, fried shrimp and grilled ham and cheese. Similarly, Mondo (900 Harrison Ave., 224-2633; www.mondoneworleans.com), the Lakeview restaurant from chef Susan Spicer, was conceived as a neighborhood eatery, so there's a kids' menu here that includes pasta plates, mini meatloaf and chicken quesadillas, all served with a green vegetable, for $8 to $12.
Meanwhile, the Ruby Slipper Cafe (139 S. Cortez St., 309-5531; 200 Magazine St., 525-9355; www.therubyslippercafe.net) scales down some of its breakfast and lunch standards for kid-sized options, like a two-egg omelet or a quarter-pound burger, cooked well-done to avoid any complaints over supposed "bloodiness." The big burgers at New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co. (Locations citywide, www.nohsc.com) also are resized for kids, and the menu presented to young diners is on paper placemats printed with games like tic-tac-toe and come with a pack of crayons to color all over it.
Keeping children occupied as well as fed during a restaurant meal is another advantage of some kids' menus, and Ninja (8433 Oak St., 866-1119; www.ninjasushineworleans.com) provides a gallery of examples. The stairway leading to the upstairs dining room of this Japanese restaurant is lined with doodle-covered placemats provided to children along with a menu of options, all under $9, like chicken teriyaki and shrimp and sweet potato tempura. These arrive as multifaceted meals with miso soup, rice, shrimp chips, edamame and even a toy to keep young ones occupied while the adults graze through more sushi.
Not only do the kids' menus make dinner management easier, they also send a certain signal of welcome to customers who have children in tow.
"When you're going out with the kids, you always wonder, 'OK, will the restaurant be good with this or will we get the evil eye?'" says Matt Murphy, chef/owner of the Irish House (1432 St. Charles Ave., 595-6755; www.theirishhouseneworleans.com), a family-friendly pub and restaurant.
Murphy and his wife Alicia might be especially sensitive to the needs of young families, since they're the parents of 4-year-old quadruplets and a 2-year-old toddler.
"We wanted this place to feel like a traditional Irish pub," Murphy says. "Back home ... the kids are there, the parents are having a pint, everyone's together."
His kitchen serves a lightly Celtic-themed kids' menu, with "toasties" (Irish-style cheese sandwiches) and eggs with potatoes, priced at $6 a plate. If the inclusion of a kids' menu sends a welcome signal to parents, keeping an overflowing toy box in the corner of the dining room turns that signal into an open invitation.
"We bring the toys in from home and when you have five kids there's always toys," Murphy says. "Sometimes kids at the restaurant walk out with them, which is fine because whenever we start to run low, it's like, 'Oh good, we get to clear things out at home again.'"